21 October 1993: The Times

The Family War Turns Nuclear

Wyndham's Medea was a mythic being, the granddaughter of Helios the sun-god, and a mighty sorceress in her own right. She is also to be found in every British city, raging at the middle-aged husband who swore everlasting devotion and plans now to jet off to the land of eternal youth with some dim sexpot. What distinguishes Jonathan Kent's production, seen last year at the Almeida and now impressively revived in the West End, is that it embraces both Medeas and both their worlds. With Diana Rigg and Tim Woodward at each other's throats, Euripides's play lacks little in size and resonance, yet seems as immediate as the raised voices you can hear exchanging threats in the house next door.

The stage is bare but for three stark chairs and a great wall of rusty iron plates riveted together. Below is the chorus, three women in the plain black dresses you would expect to see widows wearing in Greek villages today. They sing and they chatter, voicing age-old feelings about age-old subjects: men, the wrongs done to women and, as the play progresses, the desperate importance of children. Above them, back turned to us, is a raven-haired figure in a scarlet dress: the Rigg Medea, nursing her grievances.

At first I had my doubts about her performance. She looks pale and drawn enough when she comes onstage to denounce Jason's infidelity; but could this woman really have tricked the daughters of one of his rivals into boiling their father alive, or have cut up her own brother and scattered the fragments in the sea? More to the point, was she capable of slaughtering her sons by way of revenging herself on her husband? But then in came Woodward's scrawny, pony-tailed Jason, to launch into as elaborately insulting a litany of self-justification as ever wife boggled at; and my doubts melted. Yes, she was and of killing her nieces, nephews and grandchildren too.

Rigg catches two aspects of Medea's character in particular. One is the intelligence of a woman capable of taking her own emotional temperature as she girds herself for the ultimate atrocity: "I know what I intend to do is wrong, but the rage of my heart is stronger than my reason." The other is the terrible indignation Medea feels at the mocks, slurs and public humiliations she expects to endure.

There is a moment of appalled self-doubt, but then affronted pride combines with cunning, and the family war goes nuclear. The wall opens to reveal Medea's sons, silently screaming as they are butchered, and then partly disintegrates, leaving a still, grim Medea looking down on a distraught Jason with what almost seems detachment.

At this point Euripides, never one to funk a chance to expose divine perversity, wanted Medea flown by dragonmobile to Athens. But I cannot altogether blame Kent for omitting that coda. With Rigg standing implacably above, Woodward writhing below, the play's moral conclusion crosses the aeons. Look at the domestic killing-fields and shudder.

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